There is a certain level of production that simply can't be ignored.
This past Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, in just his second NFL start, rookie defensive end Da'Quan Bowers hogged all the good stuff in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive stat line. Bowers finished the game with a rather remarkable combination of numbers: seven tackles, five tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback pressures and a pass defensed. He certainly had plenty of time to make his mark – with Michael Bennett injured, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim inactive and Tim Crowder hurt on a kickoff return before he could ever play a down of defense, Bowers and fellow rookie Adrian Clayborn took every defensive snap on the edges of the Bucs' defensive line.
Can Bowers remain that productive if he continues to get a starter's share of the playing time? The Buccaneers plan to find out.
On Wednesday, Head Coach Raheem Morris indicated that Bowers would remain in the starting lineup this Sunday when the team heads to Jacksonville, even if Bennett is healthy and back among the active players on game day.
"I'm going to put Da'Quan out there first," said Morris matter-of-factly. "Mike Bennett's coming off his groin [injury]; I don't know if he's fully healthy. He looked good in practice today. So we'll put him out there and let those guys compete. The best thing that can happen to the Buccaneers right now is competition and guys competing at the position, two good players fighting for the time. That's what you want. You want those guys out there hungry. It's something we've been missing with those two guys out there together, so hopefully we'll get a chance to see it this week."
Bennett, who has missed the last two games due to that groin strain, isn't exactly being Wally Pipped. There is no doubt that the Bucs will continue to give Bennett plenty of playing time, as he was putting together a fine season himself before it was slowed by injury. Bowers and Bennett have been a nice combination at left end all season because they play with different styles. However, Bowers began the season getting only about a dozen snaps a game, sometimes less. Now there will be a much bigger share for the rookie, who has shown a knack for quickly penetrating the backfield.
"One is a giant, has great strength and is young and is starting to develop his power rush," said Morris, starting with Bowers. "The other has elite quickness and is a work-hard guy who earned his way, made his way, and really played well for us. They're definitely built differently, they definitely come from different statuses, and certainly both give us great effort."
Bowers came from the second round of the 2011 draft, which is notable in that it was both high – he was taken 51st overall – and much lower than was originally expected. Clearly considered a top-10 talent, Bowers fell due to concerns about offseason knee surgery and his long-term ability to stay healthy. The Bucs believed he could have a long NFL career and gladly snapped him up after taking Clayborn in the first round, but wanted to get that career started off as carefully as possible. The team took a slow, methodical approach to increasing Bowers' playing time, and told him up front that he was going to be frustrated by the pace.
He was, but he also put his waiting time to good use. He worked hard on his game and prepared himself to be ready when his greater opportunity arrived. It's here and, judging from his efforts against the Panthers, he was more than ready.
"It's the NFL, so everybody has a ton of talent," said Bowers. "So you've got to watch film and work on your craft. Whatever you see on film, expect it to be twice as tough when you get on the field. You've got to study hard and have a plan going into the game."
Morris said he is pleased with the development of all the team's young talent, and expects big things from the latest wave of newcomers. Still, it's Bowers who is emerging at this specific moment, and it's Clayborn who has been the team's most consistently productive rookie. Those two together – and now together in the starting lineup – bode well for the future of the defense.
"If they have the ability to stay healthy together they can really shock some people and do some special things," said Morris. "These two guys in particular are really fun to watch because of their work ethic, how they work, how they play, what kind of elite status they could become. For me, it's fun to watch these guys grow."
Less is More
On Monday, Morris said he and the Bucs' coaching staff would devise a slimmer game plan this week, that the team would "cut back" in order to get the players moving faster and playing with more confidence.
On offense, that could mean concentrating on the sections of the playbook that the team has had the most success with this season. The players got their game plans on Wednesday as preparations for the Jaguars started at One Buc Place, and did indeed find them to be slimmer than last week (virtually speaking, of course, since the Bucs spearheaded the NFL's iPad movement earlier this season). That's fine, said several key members of the offense, but either way it comes down to execution, and that has been the missing ingredient at times.
"The big thing has been attention to detail," said Freeman. "Everybody's got to kind of step it up. I guess limiting the menu is going to allow us to do that, focusing on specific things. I got the game plan today and saw what we had in – we still have quite a bit in but at the same time it's not the volume that we might have had last week or two weeks ago. I think it will be good. I think it will allow our guys to go out and play fast.
"You look at a game and you run, what, 70-80 plays. We still have a lot more than that. We're going to run our stuff, the stuff we run well, and try to get a win out of it."
Tampa Bay's offense hasn't exactly been stuck in neutral this year – the Bucs rank 16th in the NFL in yards per game and 15th in yards per play – but it has yet to find a consistent groove, or to take the expected next step forward after a very promising 2010. The Bucs were flying high at the end of '10 with a very young group of emerging skill-position players, but that enthusiasm has been hard to maintain when ill-time mistakes, quite often killer penalties, keep thwarting their best efforts. Left tackle Donald Penn, who rode his own superb 2010 season into the Pro Bowl, thinks the offense can get that attitude back over the last month of the season.
"We've got to start sticking to the stuff we do well," Penn. "And when we do call those things, we need to excel at it. We've got to get something going. We want to get this bad taste out of ourselves. Everybody's a little down but we've got to go out there and get back to having fun. That's what this game's about."
Running back LeGarrette Blount did seem to be getting into a groove in the game's leading up to the Week 13 loss to Carolina. He had two consecutive 100-yard outings before that and had averaged over five yards a carry for the previous month. However, he gained just 19 yards on 11 carries against the Panthers and didn't have much of a hand in the team's second-half efforts to rally.
The Bucs' inability to keep its run-game momentum building last week was frustrating, but Blount says the slimmer playbook could help the team restore it.
"I think it will help us stay focused a lot longer," he said. "It will help us pay more attention to detail. There are a lot of things we haven't been paying attention to, the little things that cause a lot of our drives to stall. There's nothing that we haven't seen [from opposing defenses]. We just have to execute our plays better and we have to go out there and do what we learned in practice. I have to go out there and make better reads and make better cuts and plays."
Freeman Aims for Sunday Return
Josh Freeman missed his first game in over two years last Sunday, snapping a 36-game starts streak due to a right shoulder injury suffered in Tennessee in Week 12. He hopes his current streak is much shorter.
Freeman has set his sights on returning to action Sunday when the team plays the Jaguars in Jacksonville. He was asked on Wednesday, before the team's first practice of the week, if that goal was realistic.
"Yeah, for sure," Freeman responded. "It's continually gotten better. It started out real extremely painful, just standing around, but the movement has greatly increased. I've thrown the ball a few times and it's just day-to-day gotten better. If we can continue on this pace, yeah, I really hope I can play this Sunday."
That said, Freeman conceded that he was unlikely to throw extensively in practice later in the afternoon, and indeed he was limited during the two-hour field session.
"He had some light throwing today," said Morris. "Obviously he'll be a day-by-day guy. We'll see what he'll be able to do tomorrow. We'll have a chance to evaluate him on Friday, obviously Saturday and Sunday. Obviously he's a lot better this week than he was last, and we'll get a chance to see where he'll go and if he can go the next couple of days."
Freeman said the rest his shoulder got last week, when he threw only a few times during the week of practice, was helpful, and he has since started working on rehab exercises to get his range of motion back. He didn't throw on Monday or Tuesday, and only sparingly on Wednesday, but that's the agreed-upon plan of attack.
"Ultimately," said Freeman, "the goal is to play on Sunday."
Freeman was injured on the Bucs' last offensive play in Tennessee, as he was taken hard to the ground at the end of a broken play. He said he landed on his elbow, jolting his shoulder backward and leaving it bruised all over. However, a subsequent MRI showed no serious damage so the Bucs are at least holding out hope that Freeman will progress far enough in his recovery to play against the Jaguars.
"I have more of an expectation because he feels better," said Morris. "I don't want to be a doctor. I'm not going to be that guy to put him out there and do something unsafe for the franchise, but we'll certainly get a feel from him and [Head Trainer] Todd Toriscelli, the doctors, second opinions. We do all that stuff so we'll have a great feel this week on where he's going to be."
The Bucs added a fourth quarterback to the mix on Wednesday, signing third-year man Brett Ratliff to the practice squad. That may have been prompted in part by Josh Johnson's own shoulder mishap against the Panthers. However, Johnson was not on the Bucs' injury report on Wednesday, indicating there are no lingering effects.
"He is definitely getting the Iron Man Award of the Year," said Morris of Johnson. "He hurt his shoulder in the game, popped out or whatever the case may be, popped it back in and wanted to play. I don't even think he grimaced. He went right back out there and threw a strike. Phenomenal. You've just got to give that young man credit for having the ability to do that, especially at quarterback. The whole locker room's been buzzing about it today."